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Journalist, Author, Columnist. My Twitter handle: @seemagoswami

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Zero tolerance

Put away a man who gropes a woman; and the odds are he won’t grow up to be a rapist

By the time you read this, I am sure you will know all the details about the Sanjay Nirupam-Smriti Irani controversy. But even so, what Nirupam said about Irani during a TV show bears repeating. And not the sanitised English-language translation of what he said, but his actual words. During a debate on the Gujarat election results, Nirupam dismissed Irani as someone who “kal tak toh paise ke liye TV pe thumke lagati thi” (till yesterday you used to dance on TV for money).

The sub-text was clear. As was the image that Nirupam was trying to conjure up: that of a nautch girl who is paid to dance for the amusement of men. How could such a woman expect to taken seriously in a discussion about electoral politics? She really should know her place.

But after the storm of condemnation that followed, there were many who asked just how seriously we should take this. After all, you can take the lout out of the Shiv Sena, but you can’t take the lout out of the man. And in a week when we are all grappling with the rage and sorrow evoked by the brutal gang rape of a young woman in a Delhi bus, did this throwaway comment merit so much attention?

Well, the short answer is: yes, it does.

Why? Because the fact that a woman member of Parliament can be belittled, demeaned, and dismissed as a ‘thumke lagane wali’ on national television shows just how deep sexism runs in our society. And it proves that no matter how high you rise in the world, no matter what you achieve, and no matter what the subject of the debate, at the end of the day, if you are a woman you will never be safe from being attacked by sexual innuendo.

Misogyny is so commonplace in our world that we have become inured to it. It starts in the family where husbands treat their wives as their property, where brothers regard their sisters as second-class citizens, where daughters are seen as liabilities, and all women are treated as beasts of burden.  

It manifests itself in our public places, where no woman is safe. She is leered at as she walks the streets. She is groped in buses and trains. She is sexually harassed at work. And if she finds herself in the wrong place at the wrong time, she is brutally gang-raped and left for dead.

But it all starts with the macho arrogance that Nirupam displayed so tellingly on television. And his contemptuously-curled lip as he spewed his vicious poison is an image that shows us just how terrible things are for women in our society. There may be a vast distance between the TV studio in which Sanjay Nirupam abused Smriti Irani and the Delhi bus in which the gang-rape survivor was so brutally assaulted.  But both are the result of the same mindset: which regards women with derision and views them as sex objects. The same rage that is expressed in contemptuous comments on TV debates also lies behind the innumerable instances of sexual violence against women that are reported every day.

As women, we are used to being treated this way. We are routinely whistled at, jeered, groped, pawed, and worse, as we negotiate our daily lives. And we are routinely told to ignore all this, not to make an issue of it. Move on, is the message we get. Don’t sweat the small stuff. How does it matter if someone calls you ‘achha maal’ on the road or brushes against your breast as you board a bus? There are bigger problems in life.

Yes, there are. But they all start from that one comment that we ignore; that one whistle that we pretend not to hear; that one hand groping our bottom as we walk along a crowded street.

It all starts with this belief that women are nothing more than bodies to be exploited and ends in the brutalisation of attitudes to women. And if we ignore those first stirrings of misogyny, the rage and violence escalates until it explodes in a vicious attack on a 23-year-old woman who boards a bus at 9.30 pm. The men who raped her didn’t see her as a human being. She was just a receptacle for these bestial desires. A disposable thing who could be abused and then dumped on the side of the road.

 Through my school and college years when I travelled by public transport I don’t remember a single day when I wasn’t sexually harassed in some way. (And this was in Calcutta, which is supposed to be safe for women.) Every time I challenged my harasser, there was one heart-stopping moment when I didn’t quite know how things would go: whether he would back away or escalate his attack. But it wasn’t bravery that propelled me, it was a visceral rage that anyone could dare to assume that he could violate my body and get away with it.

It is the same visceral rage that every woman feels when she is confronted by sexism or sexual violence. And it is that visceral rage that both Sanjay Nirupam and the Delhi rapists inspire within us.

So, let’s shame a man who makes sexist comments. Let’s have summary punishment for all those who harass women, either by word or by deed. Put away a man who gropes a woman and the odds are that he won’t grow up to be a rapist.

If we want to make the world safe for women, zero tolerance is the only way to go.

Saturday, December 15, 2012


Looking through a box of old pictures is sometimes the best way of bringing the past alive

In one my periodic fits of de-cluttering, I stumbled upon a box of old photographs tucked away at the back of my closet. I sat down to take a desultory look – and before I knew it, I was neck-deep in memories, and the clear-out plan had been postponed to another day.

There I was, in my Class II year-end picture, peering out suspiciously at the world from behind a mop of hair, perched safely three seats away from my class-teacher, Mrs Murray, always an object of terrified fascination. I can still remember her orange lipstick, a shade I have never since seen, and how her short legs dangled under the desk, never quite reaching the floor. But while most of the faces of my fellow-students look vaguely familiar, I am hard put to match names to more than four of them. 

Never mind, I tell myself, that was a long time ago. Maybe I’ll have better luck with my Class XI photograph. And sure enough, the recognition factor goes up significantly. There’s my class teacher Malti Puri, who taught me that history wasn’t only about mugging up dates of important battles but about stirring stories of flesh-and-blood characters who lived and breathed in her lessons – and for that I will always be grateful. (She also taught me that a sari could be sexy, as she dazzled us teenagers with her diaphanous chiffons worn with knotted blouses.)  And there are the giddy young girls I grew up with, scrubbed clean for the camera in their prim blue skirts and white blouses. Only three girls have been courageous enough to wear the sari uniform for the class photo, braving the inevitable ‘behenji’ jeers – but, sadly, I am not one of them.

Yes, old photographs have a way of effortlessly transporting us back to the past, dredging up memories that we had thought lost forever. But far more importantly, they also provide a window into a world long gone.

There’s an old black and white photo of mine, for instance, taken on a trip to Jammu when I was 11. It’s that mandatory shot that all tourists took in those days: wearing a pheran, a Kashmiri headscarf called the Kasaba, tied turban-like around the head and fixed in place with loads of costume jewellery, and gazing soulfully slightly off camera. But the picture, despite its undeniable corniness, resonates with me because I have only recently returned from Srinagar, where the Kasaba seem to have disappeared off the streets to be replaced by an Arab-style black hijab. And therein, as they say, lies a story...

But I am getting ahead of myself. My memory bank starts with a family portrait of my grandparents, seated on imposing armchairs, flanking my father (a teenager rigged out in his first three-piece suit, complete with a flower in the lapel, and looking absurdly proud), with a massive expanse of lawn spread out behind them, fringed with immensely tall trees. But while the men are decked out in Western suits and ties, my grandmother is wearing a seedha-palla sari with a full-sleeved blouse. Clearly, in keeping with the double standards of the time, the Goswami family’s embrace of modernity did not extend to the ladies.

And then, there’s the wedding portrait of my parents. My mother, all of 18, is lost in a voluminous salwar-kameez, head covered with a gota-bordered dupatta, weighed down with jewellery, almost trembling with nervous tension as she gazes apprehensively ahead. Her husband, whom she has never met before, is perched awkwardly on the arm of her chair, trying to look at ease, but failing spectacularly. They look like the strangers they are, pitchforked into matrimony by two sets of parents, and petrified of what lies before them.

I can’t help but contrast this with the wedding picture of my mother-in-law, which occupies pride of place on her bedside table. It was taken by her husband, on her wedding day. She is a strong and confident 31 year old, wearing a simple Patola sari and a big bindi, holding a bunch of flowers and grinning delightedly into the camera held by her husband, with whom she has eloped to marry in a simple Hindu ceremony in Paris. This is a woman in control of her destiny; a choice that was denied to my own mother. Which makes me all the more grateful that she brought up my sister and me to make our own way in the world.

It’s only because of that, that I now have a treasure trove of pictures to fill my memory box. Here I am on the slopes of Machhu Pichhu in Peru, part of President Narayanan’s press party, smiling gamely despite the asthma brought on the altitude. That’s me on the Wagah border, waiting for Prime Minister’s Vajpayee’s bus to trundle across. And then, there’s the photo I took of Aung San Suu Kyi on my first trip to Burma, perched on a step-ladder on the boundary of her bungalow, with thousands of her followers across the fence hanging on to every word.

The memories flash by, frame after frame, and with each one, I am grateful for the life I was granted.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Men are the new Women

They diet and work out to stay in shape; they use anti-ageing products; and yes, they love fashion

There was a time when the only people on special diets or with wide-ranging allergies (yeah, right!) as you sat down to eat at the table were the ladies. Some were ‘gluten-intolerant’ and could not eat either wheat or rice – or, in fact, pretty much anything else. Others were ‘lactose-intolerant’ and steered clear of anything which had even a whiff of dairy about it. There were those who were vegetarian or, in extreme cases, vegan. Others were on a high-protein diet. Some insisted they could not mix their carbohydrates with their proteins. And yet others stuck to soup because they could not eat solids after 7 pm. In fact, there seemed to be as many diet regimens (and, of course, allergies) as there were women on the table.

But now, men are muscling in on what was earlier a female preserve. These days, it is almost a given that the men will also be on some sort of special diet. Of course they take care to give it a suitable macho name to differentiate themselves from the ladies. But even if you call it a ‘caveman diet’ (what cavemen would eat, as in meat, fruit, etc., rather than the cereals that came with civilisation) or ‘dude food’ (the kind that the boys take so much pride in rustling up at a barbeque) there is no getting away from the fact that men are now intruding on what was once an exclusively female territory: fad diets.

Whereas earlier men restricted themselves to dreaming up whacky diet regimens for the ladies – meet Messrs Montignac, Atkins, Dukan – now the lads are also subjecting themselves to everything from deprivation to starvation to lose those pesky extra pounds.

Ditto, with the exercise regimes. There was a time when the only men you saw pounding away on the treadmill or pumping iron at the gym were putative models/actors who wanted to develop a body like Salman Khan or Hrithik Roshan. No longer. Now the middle-aged are also huffing and puffing through cardio workouts to get rid of their much-too-prosperous middles. They go for walks early morning, jog every evening, get personal trainers in to build up their physiques, and take as much pride in every pound lost as they do on every zero added to their bank accounts.

And if Pilates is on the plate, then can pedicures be far behind? Perish the thought. Beauty treatments are pretty much de rigueur for the men these days. They want their facials and face masks as much as the ladies. They too want their nails buffed to perfection with weekly manicures. And their bathroom shelves are heaving with as many face care products – exfoliating scrubs, moisturising creams, anti-ageing serums, revitalising night creams – as the women in their lives.

Fashion, too, is as much a preoccupation with men these days as it is with women. Gone are the days when they were happy to have a couple of suits in the wardrobe for office wear, and grimy jeans and sweatshirts for their days off. Now, they follow trends closely, keeping an eye out for the latest styles in tailoring.

It is not a coincidence that FTV shows as many men’s fashion shows on prime time as it does women’s collections. Or, that such magazines as GQ have found a ready niche in the marketplace, providing style tips for men who want to look trendy. International menswear brands like Canali and Armani are doing great business in India, even in the uber-expensive, made-to-measure segment. And designer jeans like Seven for Mankind and Diesel are selling as much to men as they are to women.

This new interest in fashion is not restricted to clothes either. Men have become as obsessed with shoes as women have been down the decades. Two pairs each of brown and black shoes will no longer do. Nor will one tatty pair of keds which can be pressed into duty at the family picnic. Now, the man of taste and style wants British brogues to go with his formals, Italian loafers for casual dressing, designer sneakers for the gym, patent leather to play dress up, open-toed sandals for the Indian summer. In short, he needs as many shoes as his wife (okay, I exaggerate, but only a little).

If you want to take a good look at just how much the unreconstructed man has changed, just get a load of the poster boy for the New Man: Shane Warne. Yes, good old Warnie. Remember him, the cheerfully podgy spinner on the Australian cricket team, with a weather-beaten complexion and straw-like hair that flopped down untidily every time he came in to bowl?

Well, if you do, you certainly won’t recognise him in his new incarnation. His forehead looks Botox-smooth, though he insists (as you do) that it is all down to his anti-wrinkle cream. His hair is subtly highlighted, conditioned to within an inch of its life, and perfectly styled to frame his suspiciously-taut face. His whitened teeth gleam maniacally as he gives a rictus-grin to the camera. And his toned abs and pert bum is shown off to perfection in his new designer togs.

Shane Warne, they tell us, is the New Man, for whom the term ‘metrosexual’ was minted. But if you ask me, he is representative of a new breed: Men who are the New Women.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Deja vu

If such American series as Dallas can be revived successfully, why can’t Hum Log and Buniyaad?

Growing up in a pre-satellite television era, my TV viewing was perforce restricted to the stuff that the handful of Indian channels deigned to show. Thus it was that all the excitement about Dallas and ‘Who shot J.R. Ewing?’ completely passed me by. I was much too enthralled by the catfights between Blake Carrington’s former and current wives, Alexis and Krystle (Joan Collins and Linda Evans), as they went at each other with their grotesquely-padded shoulders and seriously-big hair in Dynasty, to care very much about the adventures of another oil tycoon named Ewing.

Now that Dallas has been revived (though sadly, Larry Hagman, who played the legendary JR died after the first season of the sequel), I am trying to shore up my knowledge about the show that had the entire world enthralled during the late 70s, through the 80s, and the early 90s, just so that I can have all the characters straight in my head. But such are the twists and turns of the plots – the entire 9th season was just a dream of one of the characters? Are you kidding me? – that I have given up in despair.

The entire exercise did get me thinking, though. Given how many of the old British and American series have been revived of late – Upstairs Downstairs, Charlie’s Angels, (Beverly Hills) 90210, Hawaii Five-O – there is clearly a market for nostalgia in the world of television serials. So why is it that nobody in India has gotten around to making sequels of all those serials that we grew up on?

I know that there are some that I would love to see updated for the 21st century. First among them is, of course, the programme that set the ball rolling, as it were: Hum Log. When it started in 1984, the high spot of the TV-viewing week used to be the film song programme Chitrahaar. But from the first episode on, Hum Log became required viewing in almost every household in the country. We would watch enthralled as a middle-class family (where the daughters were endearingly referred to as ‘Badki’ ‘Majhli’ and ‘Chutki’) went about its everyday life, with all the highs and lows this entailed. And we stayed tuned in as Ashok Kumar, the grandfather of the nation, materialised on the screen to give us a little homily on family values. (If any intrepid soul does revive the show now, Anupam Kher would be a shoo-in for the Ashok Kumar slot.)

Running a close second is that old favourite, Buniyaad, which told the story of a Punjabi family torn apart by Partition. Lajjoji and Masterji became iconic figures in their time while the young and radiant Kiran Joneja, playing Veeravali, won the hearts of the nation (and that of her director and future husband, Ramesh Sippy). Given how TV-friendly he is, maybe Karan Johar can take over the task of recasting Buniyaad, tracing the trajectories of the characters as they make their way in a newly-resurgent India. Or even take it forward two generations and set it in the new millennium, with Veeranwali playing the grand old matriarch to the descendants of her illegitimate son.

And then, there was Rajani, the crusading housewife played with a certain insouciant charm by the late Priya Tendulkar, who took on the system in her own brisk, no-nonsense way in every episode, and triumphed over it, striking a blow for Everywoman and Everyman. I can’t help but think that this era, in which the phrase ‘aam aadmi’ is on everyone’s lips – not to mention political agenda – is just right for a revival of the Rajani spirit. And wouldn’t it be a coup if some production company could tempt Smriti Irani back on the small screen to play the role that Priya Tendulkar made famous?

I am not so sure about how I would recast Yeh Jo Hai Zindagi though. Shafi Inamdar and Swaroop Sampat were so perfect as Ranjit and Renu Verma – he, the long-suffering, put-upon husband and she, the harried, slightly ditzy housewife – that it is hard to see who could match up to them. And maybe the simple, almost childish fun that the serial encapsulated is not in tune with our more-cynical times. But it would be nice to see it revived, if only to recapture the spirit of a more innocent age.

The other serial I have happy memories of is Karamchand, the detective drama which immortalised the lines: ‘Sir, you are a genius’ – ‘Shut up Kitty’. But while Sony Television did try to revive it, with Pankaj Kapoor reprising his role as Karamchand while Sushmita Mukherjee was replaced by Sucheta Khanna as Kitty, this version did not evoke quite the same magic. So, it’s not as if Indian television does not do re-makes of sequels of old shows. Sab TV, in fact, commissioned an Indian version of the American sitcom, I Dream of Jeannie, titled (rather risibly) as Jeannie Aur Juju (don’t ask!). But this version didn’t have anything like the resonance of the original.

But I refuse to be disheartened by these failures. After all, if Bollywood can do re-makes of such mega-hits as Don and Agneepath and have them raking it in at the box-office, surely television can reprise its iconic series successfully too? And until it does, I for one, will live in hope of seeing a remade-for-our-times version of Hum Log or Buniyaad.